Brett Lampitt, The Daily Telegraph, May 30, 2013
Trying something for the first time, particularly on holiday, can be a revelatory experience — especially when any preconceptions you may have had are blown out of the water. But when that reality far exceeds expectation, it’s a rare treat.
Such was the case when I boarded Scenic Crystal for my first cruise. I’d picked a river rather than a sea cruise for my maiden voyage, because the destinations appealed. We were set to sail along the Danube from Budapest to Regensburg in Germany — the first half of a two-week Jewels of Europe cruise, which finished in Amsterdam. For company and a reliable second opinion, my wife had agreed to join me — leaving our three teenage offspring behind to fend for themselves at home.
Presented with the rare opportunity to spend quality time together without family distractions, we’d decided that we would seek out as much pampering, indulgence and guilt-free relaxation as we could. Plus a little sightseeing, of course.
Happily, it appeared to be the mission of every crew member to indulge and spoil each guest as much or as little as they wanted. There were 72 crew on the spacious and well-appointed craft – or ‘‘space ship’’, as Scenic Tours calls it. For 176 passengers, that’s quite a ratio.
And everyone — from the highly amusing hotel manager Detlef, to the tireless cleaning staff who ensured our suite was spotlessly clean every day — worked cheerfully, enthusiastically and professionally. We even had a personal butler, who made sure we had everything we needed, from a freshly laundered shirt in the morning to a cup of lapsang souchong in the afternoon and a cocktail at six.
Just as inspiring was the growing sense, as we glided past the ever-changing banks of the Danube, that the river itself has its own personality. From the neo-Gothic majesty of Budapest’s Parliament Building, our first embarkation point, to the timeless Bavarian charm of Regensburg, via Bratislava, Vienna, Dürnstein, Melk, Linz and Passau, the river was a constant, calming presence.
As we wound our way in gloriously stately fashion through city and country, we were presented with an unforgettable array of views — from the rugged peaks of the Wachau valley, with its ancient fortresses and ornate castles, to the broad, fertile plains of the Eferdinger basin. And all the time, the Danube itself bore us with good grace, treated the handsome Scenic Crystal with due consideration and care, and provided a gleaming white counterpoint to the clear blue skies that greeted us each day of our voyage.
The ship itself was a surprise. Imagine a five-star luxury hotel, complete with well-appointed, air-conditioned bedrooms, tasteful, comfortable lounges, excellent dining, elegant outdoor areas and impeccable service throughout. Now put this hotel on the water and send it through the heart of Europe, past some of the prettiest landscapes you’ll ever see, which can be enjoyed from your suite’s private balcony as you are served morning coffee and fresh, mouthwatering Viennese pastries by your butler. Such was the level of comfort and the temptation to laze for hours on the roof-garden terrace with a book and a cool drink, that I was torn between enjoying the vast array of excursions on offer and staying behind to savour a little more of life on board.
But excursions are, of course, a crucial part of the experience. Who would want to miss the chance to take a front-row seat at the world-famous Spanish Riding School of Vienna, to see the striking Lipizzaner stallions? Or to float amid the art-nouveau tiles, stained glass and mosaics of Budapest’s famous Gellért thermal baths? Or to walk in the footsteps of Maria von Trapp and her musical charges (the big-screen versions, at least) as you explore the gardens and markets of Salzburg — Mozart’s birthplace and the location, we were delighted to discover, of Stiftskeller St Peter, Austria’s oldest restaurant?
While it made the most of our stopping points along the river, the packed programme of excursions was potentially exhausting for anyone lacking boundless energy, and not all are to everyone’s taste. Finding myself encouraged by a highly enthusiastic tour guide to sing Sixteen Going on Seventeen from The Sound of Music was a bit too much for my sensibility at 10am, so we slipped quietly away from the sing-song, hoping no one would notice.
Perhaps my favourite outing was a bike ride along the riverbank — 20 painless miles from Dürnstein to Melk, through impossibly pretty countryside. The power-assisted bicycles meant we could exert as much or as little energy as we wished. When we stopped in the sunshine for ice creams at a riverside café, the ship sailed past, affording us a rare exterior view of our “home” for the week. It was at that moment that I realised I was hooked. If this is what I’ve been missing by never going on a cruise, I thought, I’ve some catching up to do.
Scenic Tours offers an eight-day Danube Discovery cruise from Budapest to Nuremberg, departing October 28, 2013. From £1,695pp including flights.